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27 March 2019

Wheelchairs: The assistive device that gives life

The reality is that many persons with disabilities often fall within the poorest of the poor - Not only do they lack basic services, but also quality of life, writes André Kalis.

With the recent celebration of International Wheelchair Day, it is pertinent to consider the importance of this assistive device. More than just a nice-to-have, a wheelchair is in many cases a lifeline for persons with disabilities. The severe under-delivery of these critical assistive devices by the government healthcare system, is detrimental to the lives of many persons with disabilities. 

Consider this: Jabulani*, a child with a disability and without a wheelchair, is permanently bed-bound, cut off from the outside world and from socialising with friends and family. Traveling with him, especially on public transport, becomes an almost impossible task for his parents.

This in turn influences his access to public health services as well as education, since most schools are not able to accommodate him without a wheelchair. The absence of a wheelchair makes him a lifelong dependent on his family and community, robbing him of his rights to mobility, independence, facilities and services, socialising, and education to name a few.

Sadly, Jabulani is not alone in this situation. The National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD) is aware of many such cases where the Department of Health fails to adequately provide wheelchairs to persons with disabilities in South Africa. Although the NCPD, does ground-breaking work in the promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities, it is in no position whatsoever to compensate for the Department of Health’s severe under-provisioning of wheelchairs.

Unfulfilled obligations

We, at the NCPD, have polled our affiliates on the provisioning of assistive devices by state hospitals and clinics around the country. The results showed, without exception, the severe under-delivery of assistive devices by the government health care system in all nine provinces. 

Under section 27 of the South African Constitution, the government is compelled to provide wheelchairs and other assistive devices, free of charge, under its obligation to provide essential healthcare services. As President Cyril Ramaphosa noted in his opening remarks at the Presidential Working Group on Disability in February 2019, South Africa also has international obligations to fulfil under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this ensures the independence, empowerment and inclusion of persons with disabilities. 

A wait too long

Massive backlogs and unrealistically long waiting lists mean patients must often wait several years for a wheelchair. In many cases, once the wheelchair does arrive, it is no longer the correct fit. 

Children with cerebral palsy, an impairment that causes challenges with body movement, require customised wheelchairs for correct posturing, making it an essential seating and mobility device. Though a wheelchair is an expensive device, the government remains obligated to provide it. Without a wheelchair or any other assistive device, persons with disabilities are denied a most basic human right.

Fighting for rights

The reality is that many persons with disabilities often fall within the poorest of the poor. Not only do they lack basic services, but also quality of life due to the Department of Health’s utter failure to provide wheelchairs and other assistive devices such as hearing-aids, crutches, orthopaedic shoes, callipers, prosthetic limbs and even nappies. Relying on the support of the public and corporates in the form of donations, organisations such as the NCPD aim to help improve the circumstances that persons with disabilities face. However, as far as the provisioning of assistive devices is concerned, our organisation’s efforts to alleviate the massive shortage of assistive devices is not even a drop in the ocean. Through our children’s programmes that advocate for the rights of children with disabilities to be upheld, we will continue to call on government to fulfil its constitutional obligation to provide assistive devices to the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society.

*The child’s name has been changed to protect his identity. 

André Kalis is a Specialist: Advocacy, Policy and Children’s Matters, at the National Council of and for Persons with Disabilities

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